The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles

The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles


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For astronaut Ron Garan, living on the International Space Station was a powerful, transformative experience—one that he believes holds the key to solving our problems here on Earth.

On space walks and through windows, Garan was struck by the stunning beauty of the Earth from space but sobered by knowing how much needed to be done to help this troubled planet. And yet on the International Space Station, Garan, a former fighter pilot, was working work side by side with Russians, who only a few years before were “the enemy.” If fifteen nationalities could collaborate on one of the most ambitious, technologically complicated undertakings in history, surely we can apply that kind of cooperation and innovation toward creating a better world. That spirit is what Garan calls the “orbital perspective.”

Garan vividly conveys what it was like learning to work with a diverse group of people in an environment only a handful of human beings have ever known. But more importantly, he describes how he and others are working to apply the orbital perspective here at home, embracing new partnerships and processes to promote peace and combat hunger, thirst, poverty, and environmental destruction. This book is a call to action for each of us to care for the most important space station of all: planet Earth. You don’t need to be an astronaut to have the orbital perspective. Garan’s message of elevated empathy is an inspiration to all who seek a better world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626562462
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 02/02/2015
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 808,620
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Col. Ron Garan (USAF ret.) is a decorated fighter pilot, astronaut, aquanaut, and entrepreneur. He has logged 178 days in space and 71 million miles in orbit. He is the founder of the nonprofit social enterprise incubator Manna Energy Foundation and has worked with the US Agency for International Development. Garan is also the founder of Fragile Oasis, an effort to use the orbital perspective to inspire positive social and environmental action.

Read an Excerpt

The Orbital Perspective

Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of Seventy-One Million Miles

By Ronald J. Garan Jr.

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Ronald J. Garan, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-248-6


Humanity's Home in the Heavens

* On July 17, 1975, at 7:19 p.m. GMT, Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov and American astronaut Tom Stafford reached across the hatches of their docked Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft and shook hands 140 miles above Earth. The event, which represented the end of a long, expensive space race and the beginning of a movement toward the peaceful exploration of space, was the end result of an agreement forged in May 1972, when President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin formalized a commitment to making a peaceful joint program of space exploration a reality. Speaking on the significance of this agreement, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev noted, "The Soviet and American spacemen will go up into outer space for the first major joint scientific experiment in the history of mankind. They know that from outer space our planet looks even more beautiful. It is big enough for us to live peacefully on it, but it is too small to be threatened by nuclear war."

The Apollo–Soyuz mission was heralded as a breakthrough in Cold War diplomacy, but the collaboration was short-lived, and the end of the mission marked the end of the two countries' real cooperation in human spaceflight for nearly two decades. According to George Abbey, former head of the Johnson Space Center, the Soviets wanted to continue working with the Americans on joint missions after the Apollo–Soyuz mission, but the Americans did not wish to continue. Instead, the Americans saw their own space shuttle on the horizon, with its revolutionary promise of relatively safe, inexpensive access to space and a flight rate of fifty to sixty missions per year. It was envisioned that the shuttle would herald a new era of U.S. space exploration, including enabling the construction of a massive space station. With all these things on the horizon, the United States didn't see a compelling reason to continue to partner with the Soviets.

Over the next two decades, the Soviets continued their pioneering work in space station launch and design, which had begun with the launch of the first space station in history, Salyut 1, in 1971. A couple of years after the Apollo– Soyuz docking, in 1977, the Soviets created the second generation Salyut station, followed in 1986 by the construction of Space Station Mir, the name of which means "peace" or "world." Meanwhile, the United States was building its space shuttle and pursuing its goal of building Space Station Freedom.

Unfortunately, the space shuttle would never live up to its promise of being inexpensive, safe, or easy to operate at a high frequency, and because of the shuttle's shortfalls, as well as a change in political will and funding, the dream of constructing a massive, highly capable U.S. space station languished. Since the early 1980s, roughly $11.4 billion had been spent, and the station had been redesigned several times, but by 1992 no hardware had been delivered to space, and congressional support was drying up. Space Station Freedom was most likely going to die before a single component had been launched, and even if it didn't get canceled, it would be over budget and way behind schedule. On the Russian side, Mir, which was scheduled to be superseded by Mir-2, was also in trouble. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent financial problems, it was apparent that the Russians would not be able to afford to launch and assemble Mir-2.

Thus, by the early nineties the geopolitical and space program planets aligned and the time was ripe to readdress a Russian–U.S. partnership in space exploration. The rudiments of the planned Space Station Freedom and the planned Space Station Mir-2 could be repurposed into an international program. The Americans would gain experience docking shuttles to a large station, and with the Russians, would develop the docking system that would eventually be used on the International Space Station (ISS).

The plan, which became known as the Shuttle–Mir program, immediately leveraged both the U.S. and Russian space programs. All of a sudden, we would have two spacecraft capable of carrying humans into space, and each space program would bring unique solutions to different pieces of the puzzle, adding value to the partnership. The Americans had little experience in operating a space station; the Russians had vast experience. The Russians also knew how to build modules cheaply, and billions of dollars could potentially be saved by merging the Russian and American space station programs. The American space program, on the other hand, was much better funded, and the space shuttle could provide badly needed resupply to the aging Mir and serve as the long-term workhorse for construction of the ISS. Two big programs that were headed toward the cliff could be salvaged.


In June 1992, President George H. W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement, which evolved under the Clinton administration, to undertake the Shuttle–Mir program, the first phase in a long-term plan for cooperation in space. Plans to build the U.S.-led Space Station Freedom would be abandoned and Russia would join a new partnership to design and build what eventually became the International Space Station. This program, in the eyes of politicians in both countries, solved myriad problems. Russia saw its partnership with the United States, Europe, Canada, and Japan as a way to achieve acceptance by Western nations while keeping its deteriorating Mir program going. Perhaps the most important benefit, in the U.S. view, was that pumping money into the Russian space program would discourage Russian rocket scientists and missile technology from being exported to countries with a desire to do harm to the United States and its allies. This was a particular concern, given the recent collapse of the Soviet Union and the uncertain future in that country.

A number of technical meetings followed the Shuttle–Mir agreement. In July 1993, for instance, Yuri Semenov, chief of Energia, the now-commercial former Soviet Design Bureau, held a symposium in the United States to discuss Mir and to attract interest in and business to the Russian space station. Semenov gave approval for the top Energia people associated with Mir to attend and, for the first time, to speak openly about the space station and its capabilities. It was an extraordinary, historic, and successful symposium—a rich technical exposé of this orbiting facility that had been shrouded in secrecy.

Following the symposium, the Russians and Americans began a series of meetings in Crystal City, Virginia. These meetings occurred in a nondescript, nameless conference room in a building that both the Russian and American participants referred to as oden, oden, oden, because ah-dyin ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is the Russian word for "one" and the building's street number was 111. The goal of these meetings was to explore ways the United States and Russia could collaborate in space and would prove to be a critical turning point in the two nations' destiny in space. These initial technical meetings both indicated and fostered a real desire to work together, which is probably best illustrated by the lengths to which people from both countries were willing go to ensure the project kept moving forward.

For instance, although Russia was in a state of turmoil and the country was seemingly falling apart, George Abbey, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin, and other NASA personnel traveled to Moscow in October 1993 to meet with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, and negotiate Russia's entrance into the ISS program. The group arrived in the middle of a ten-day conflict in which, according to government estimates, 187 people were killed and 437 were wounded; estimates from nongovernment sources put the death toll as high as two thousand. President Yeltsin, facing impeachment by many members of the Russian Duma, called on the military to end the rebellion. Despite the turmoil, meetings were conducted at Roscosmos headquarters in the northern part of Moscow, just outside the Garden Ring.

On October 3, the Russian and American delegations gathered around a large, round table while gunfire echoed outside. Goldin recalled watching TV and thinking it was like being in a movie. "You could see people bashing in buses, throwing them over. You could hear machine guns firing." That evening, armed proparliament demonstrators advanced on the Ostankino television center, not far from the Penta hotel where the NASA contingent was staying. As the demonstrators approached the TV complex, military units met them and a fierce battle ensued. Part of the TV center was significantly damaged, television stations went off the air, and sixty-two people were killed.

Goldin called Washington for guidance on whether the delegation should leave the city. Soon a call came back: "The President of the United States would like to show support for democracy in Russia. If it's safe, please stay." Goldin called the group together to take a vote. Every single person voted to stay.

By sunrise the next day the Russian army had encircled the parliament building, and a few hours later army tanks began to shell the Russian White House. Meanwhile, the NASA contingent was getting ready to head from the hotel to resume negotiations at Roscosmos headquarters. Abbey recalled seeing tanks firing into the White House on television and then, a few seconds later, hearing the blasts and seeing the smoke rising outside.

Even in the presence of this much instability and uncertainty about the future of their country, the Russians were still willing to talk about cooperation in space. Likewise, the effort was so important to the Americans that they were willing to risk life and limb to push the partnership forward. Space rose above the fray. As Goldin put it, "That day of revolution, we negotiated the Russian entry into the International Space Station." There was great motivation on both sides to move things forward because, in reality, both sides needed each other.


The Shuttle–Mir program began in earnest on February 3, 1994, with the launch of Space Shuttle Mission STS-60. On the middeck of Space Shuttle Discovery, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was making his third trip to space. Krikalev would go on to fly three more space missions, including two ISS missions, and ended up spending more time in space than anyone in history—an astonishing 804 days.

A year and three days later, on February 6, 1995, during the STS-63 mission, Shuttle Commander Jim Wetherbee maneuvered Discovery to within 36 feet of Space Station Mir. On board Mir were Mir-17 commander Aleksandr Viktorenko and cosmonauts Yelena Kondakova and Valeri Polyakov. There was to be no docking on this mission, just a close approach and partial flight around the station. The mission was a dress rehearsal of sorts for the first docking to the station.

As Wetherbee approached Mir he radioed, "As we are bringing our spaceships closer together, we are bringing our nations closer together. The next time we approach, we will shake your hand and together we will lead our world into the next millennium." Viktorenko responded, "We are one! We are human!"

For Mike Foale, who was on board Discovery, the realization of the importance of the mission actually came later:

We all thought this Mir thing was kind of a jaunt—it was just an add-on [to the mission], albeit exciting. But it was when MCC-Houston [Mission Control Center, Houston] sent up a crappy picture made from a TV picture downloaded from Mir to MCC-Moscow—a really bad black-and-white image of us on the shuttle, coming up to the Mir—that it suddenly dawned on us that we had done something really important. It was that view of us from the Russians' point of view that brought out a key issue in collaboration, and that's looking at the world through the other person's eyes.

The first shuttle docking to Mir came in June 1995, during STS-71, when Shuttle Commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson docked Space Shuttle Atlantis to the station. This was the first time that the U.S. space shuttle, which was designed to construct and dock to an American space station, had ever docked to anything. The mission delivered Russian cosmonauts Anatoly Solovyev and Nikolai Budarin to Mir and gave American astronaut Norm Thagard a ride home following his historic first U.S. mission on board Mir. He had launched to the space station nearly four months earlier aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.


The Shuttle–Mir program continued until 1998. In all, seven U.S. astronauts spent nearly one thousand days on the orbiting space station. At times the relationship was strained by various emergencies and crises. In 1997, for instance, a fire broke out on board, threatening the life of the crew, including American astronaut Jerry Linenger. Later that year, the unmanned Russian cargo ship Progress collided with the station. The collision breached Mir's hull and sent the crew, including American astronaut Mike Foale, scrambling to cut off the damaged part of the station and isolate the subsequent depressurization as the space station's air leaked out into the vacuum of space. Incredibly, despite the severity of the situation, the crew was able to isolate the leaking section of the station, but the aftermath of the collision left the orbiting complex tumbling and without power for many hours.

Such life-threatening events put a serious strain on the U.S.–Russian relationship, but they also helped forge a degree of trust. In the hours after the cargo ship collision, for instance, the crew had no choice but to collaborate to save their lives, and after the initial emergency was over, the United States and Russia improved their national collaboration out of necessity, to save the Shuttle–Mir program. The Russians became more willing to share technical data about their space operations, and the Americans came to prove they were in it for the long haul. The Americans demonstrated that they believed the partnership was valuable enough to continue flying American astronauts to the station, even though the continued U.S. presence on board Mir was a very controversial decision fraught with political bickering.

The decision of all parties to stay the course proved to be a critical component in building the trust that was to become the foundation of the International Space Station program. The lessons learned during the Shuttle–Mir program enabled the fifteen nations of the International Space Station partnership—which includes Canada, the nations of the European Space Agency, Japan, Russia, and the United States—to embark on the largest, most daring peacetime international collaboration in history.

The first component of the ISS was launched in 1998, and the station has been continuously inhabited since November 2000, surpassing the previous record of nearly ten years' continuous human presence in low Earth orbit—held by Mir, of course.

However, the ISS program has also had its share of challenges to overcome to keep the partnership together, some of which we will detail in the next chapter. No challenge was more dire and critical, though, than the aftermath of the morning of February 1, 2003—the day Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry, killing the crew of Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon. In the wake of the disaster, the shuttle fleet was grounded for more than two years while new safety measures were incorporated into the design.

During this period, the Russians picked up the slack, transporting crew members to and from the ISS. But as the grounding of the shuttles dragged on, there was much concern among the ISS partners that the United States would be unable to fulfill its commitments to the construction of the space station. In June 2005, newly appointed NASA Administrator Mike Griffin faced this concern head-on at a meeting of ISS partners in Paris. Essentially, Griffin's counterparts from the partner space agencies were saying, "If you don't complete the ISS, we will never work with you again, because we will have all lost our jobs." The international partners were very concerned, and they were very aware that the decision to finish the space station was seriously in doubt.


Excerpted from The Orbital Perspective by Ronald J. Garan Jr.. Copyright © 2015 Ronald J. Garan, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Muhammad Yunus
Introduction: A Shift in Perspective

Part I: Looking Skyward
1. Humanity’s Home in the Heavens
2. Space, the Shared Frontier
3. Lessons in Collaboration from the ISS Program

PART II: Looking Earthward
4. One Moment in Space
5. The Orbital Perspective
6. The Key Is “We”

PART III: Looking Forward
7. Camp Hope
8. Arrested Development
9. Mass Collaboration
Conclusion: A Web of Trust
About the Author

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